After everything that Jennifer had put Beth through, when Beth finally flipped and hit her, it was over nothing.
Beth returned from Maggie's in a state. Her lifelong best friend had caught Beth with her hand in her bag. Their friendship, which had withstood childbirth, divorce and every one of Maggie's melodramas over the years, lay in tatters. Beth missed her terribly. If only she'd gone to the police that first morning. Maggie would have supported her through the entire Marc thing. She'd have stood by Beth through whatever legal issues arose and she'd have screamed self defence from every roof top in town on Beth’s behalf.
At what point would she have washed her hands of me? Beth wondered. She'd probably have accepted her taking Jennifer in, the smashed kitchen window and even the removal of Marc’s body. Beth knew exactly where Maggie's friendship would have ended: the day she took her first vial of morphine from the hospital. Beth realised that that was her point of no return. Everything up to that moment could have been justifiable. With a good solicitor she may even have escaped a jail sentence.
Everything Beth had done up to that point Maggie would have forgiven and explained away as a misguided survival instinct kicking in. But theft of controlled drugs from a county hospital was beyond even Beth’s level of forgiveness, never mind Maggie’s. Beth could only imagine what her oldest friend would make of breaking into a defenceless old lady’s home and robbing her of her bed and toilet. Beth was deeply ashamed. She was worried how the previous evening might have affected Mary's health and on top of all that worry she was heartsick and heartbroken.
Walking from her home to Maggie's house and back she'd been hit by a paranoia so intense that she felt as though she might have to find somewhere to vomit.
Mary must have spoken to the police. Why hadn't they come for her? To be taken from her home would have been a sweet release. The worst women's prison in England couldn't have been any worse than the sentence she was already living but to be taken from the street would be terrifying. Every second of the walk home she expected to hear the sirens of police cars screeching up beside her. She imagined eight strong men running from cars and rugby tackling her to the ground. By the time she put her key in the door she was a mess.
‘God, you've been ages. Did you get the number okay?’ Jennifer shouted through to her from the living room. It was as though Jennifer was asking her if she'd remembered to pick up a pint of milk.
‘Yes, I got it. That's right, Phantom, selfish to the end,’ said Beth.
‘I said I got it.’
‘Knew you would.’
‘Did I ever have a choice?’
‘Oh, don't start. If you're making a cuppa, I'll have one, but hurry up because the news is coming on soon and I want to see if there's anything on about the bed.’
Beth didn't scream. She didn't yell. Her voice was solid and neutral as she said, ‘If you want a brew, why don't you get up off your lazy fucking arse and make one yourself?’ She had taken off her coat and was in the living room now, glaring at Jennifer as she sat there with that damn snake wrapped around her. ‘Move. You're in my chair.’
‘Ooh, get you. I take it you and Maggie have had a lover's tiff, then?’ Jennifer didn't come back at Beth with threats and mantras as she normally would. She uncoiled from the armchair and slouched towards the kitchen with Darklord draped across her shoulders. Beth didn't even flinch at the sight of the snake as she flopped into the soft chair.
‘Crikey, Beth, you're shaking like a leaf. What's happened?’
‘What's happened?’ Beth parroted. ‘Oh nothing, I've just killed and stolen. And if that’s not bad enough, I can add to my repertoire beating up old ladies and getting caught with my hand in my best friend's bag. That's all.’
Jennifer snorted. ‘Well, aren't we full of the joys of spring tonight? And anyway, you didn't beat her up. You were very nice to her. You got the number, though, and Maggie doesn't know what you were taking?’
‘Fuck off, Phantom.’ Beth had never been one for swearing, except for the odd ‘shit’ if she dropped something. When, she wondered, had this foul language come about? She couldn't say it was a rub off from Jennifer because she didn't swear much either, which was something that had surprised Beth. She'd always assumed that all teenagers swore as a matter of habit.
‘I'm sorry, I didn't mean to swear at you. Look just give me a few minutes and I'll be okay.’ And then she thought of Mary's eyes filling up when Jennifer had said to take her wedding ring. She saw again the look on Maggie's face when she'd walked into the room and the way that her Godson had looked at her, as though she was a stranger. Beth felt the anger surging up from her gallbladder where it had mixed thoroughly with bile and stomach acid. ‘No, no, Phantom. That's not true. Actually, I do mean it. I mean every fucking word of it. I wish you'd just fuck off and die.’
Jennifer looked at her warily and left the room without saying a word. Beth heard her going up the stairs and then the screech of the vivarium door as it opened. She bounded back down the stairs taking them two at a time and went into the kitchen for a few minutes, reappearing just as the news was beginning with two cups of coffee and a plate of toast on a tray with two side plates.
‘You feeling any better? Thought this might help.’ Beth didn't want the toast, and she couldn't have cared less if the coffee was poisoned. In fact, after yelling at the girl, there would no doubt be some punishment and it was highly likely that it was poisoned coffee with a teaspoon full of rat droppings instead of sugar. Beth was beyond caring – she needed the caffeine.
They sat through the forty-five minute programme without saying much. Jennifer commented on a couple of the items reported but Beth did little more than grunt in reply.
‘And finally,’ the anchorman said. ‘We're crossing over to our local correspondent in Barrow-in-Furness.’
‘Well, James, as you can see, it's glorious weather for the ducks here in Barrow.’ The good looking young man with too many teeth and his coat collar turned up gave a chuckle and then carefully composed his face into an expression of grave concern. ‘I am just about to enter the farmhouse of Mrs. Mary Baker. As you can see from the state of the front door beside me, she was broken into and burgled last night. Mrs. Baker is eighty nine years old and has just recently come out of hospital to spend the last of her days at her beloved farm. Last night, she was the victim of a cruel and vicious crime. I'll pass you over to Mary to tell you in her own words what happened in this, one of the strangest news reports of the year.’
Beth was sitting on the edge of her seat, her coffee cup cradled with both hands. Her knuckles had whitened around the mug. Her face was pale, her eyes huge in her face. She couldn't stop shaking despite having leaned over to turn the gas fire up full.
‘We're famous, eh, kid?’ said Phantom, obviously enjoying every second of the interview. ‘Hey, there she is, there's old Mary. I bet she's never had so much attention in all of her long life. She'll be loving the sympathy.’
‘Shut up,’ snarled Beth. ‘Don't say another word.’
Jennifer opened her mouth to reply, but stopped when the camera cut to a facial shot of Mary, bundled up in blankets and a shawl. ‘Well, son, it was all proper peculiar,’ Mary said. ‘I opened me eyes and there they were, three of ’em all stood over me, shoutin’ and tellin’ me off. They had black masks covering their faces and they all wore gloves.’
Beth couldn't understand what was going on. Mary didn't normally speak like this. She sounded confused, where did she get three from? She wasn't given to exaggeration. She was particular about her speech and pronunciation and she was normally as sharp as a button. Beth was worried that the burglary had upset her more than she'd feared.
‘And did you get a good look at the burglars, Mary?’ the presenter continued.
‘Well, son, there wasn't much to see, see. They all had masks. All’s I can tell you is there were three men. Big brutes they was, too. One of them picked me right up and carried me clean across the room in his arms. Oh, wait, there is something. I did happen to notice that he had one of those horrible tattoo things on his arm. It was a heart with the name Mary written across it. I remember it because it was the same as my name, see.’ She looked up at the reporter.
‘And what happened next, Mary?’ he asked, urging her to disclose more.
‘Well, they huffed me onto the sofa and stole me bed right from under me, the brutes. Said something about selling it on Tebay. There's not much at Tebay, though. me and my Jimmy – that's my late husband, you know – we stopped at Tebay for a cup of tea once. But it was wishy-washy stuff. You could tell they didn't make it in a proper teapot. I don't think there's even a market at Tebay.’
Beth knew Mary well enough to know that this waffling was all an act. She was directing the conversation away from awkward questions.
The interview drew to a close. ‘Back to you, James,’ said the reporter. ‘And maybe we should be charging “Tebay.com” for t’mention.’
Beth sat quietly and felt humbled. Why would Mary protect her? She didn't deserve it. She felt the tears spill over her cheeks and felt as though she could cry forever.
Phantom was hugging herself and laughing loudly. ‘Classic, absolute classic. Well, would you credit it? The crazy old bitch has just saved our bacon without even knowing it.’
Beth hadn't told Jennifer that Mary had recognised her the night before. Jennifer's words were forcing their way through Beth's shame and she felt the rage of earlier building again.
Jennifer was still talking. ‘The stupid, crazy old cow. What she can't remember she's just made up. How could she mistake us for men? I could kiss the senile old trout if she didn't smell of pee.’
Beth wasn't aware of moving, one second she was sitting on the rim of the chair, the next she flew towards Jennifer. The girl moved her head in shock, presenting her face towards Beth as she looked up at the sudden flurry of movement.
The slap was hard. The sound cracked loudly enough to drown out the voices on the television and cause the cage full of rats to stop their business and stare.
Beth had moved so fast that Jennifer had no time to protect herself from the full force of the blow. She gasped and flung both hands up to her left cheek. Her eyes filled with tears and the imprint of Beth's hand was already visible in a deepening red stain across her cheek. ‘You bitch,’ she whispered. ‘That's the first and last time you'll ever hit me. I'll make you pay for this.’
Striking Jennifer had felt good. Beth’s hand stung so badly that she had to pin it under the opposite armpit to cushion the throbbing. But it felt good. ‘Oh yes? What're you going to do, Jennifer? Yes, I called you Jennifer. What are you going to do about that, too? Plenty of ornaments about. Help yourself. Are you going to go to the police? Well, you know what? I'm finished. You fill your boots, darling, because I'm done fighting and I couldn't care less. Tell you what, I'll save you a place beside me and if it isn't in jail, then it’ll be in hell.’
Jennifer flew out of the room in a rage, Beth heard her thumping up the stairs, she heard a door opening and then she came flying back into the living room. She was breathing hard. ‘See this?’ She waved a piece of paper in front of Beth's face and then stuffed it in her pocket before Beth could see what was written on it.
‘You'll be sorry. You don't want to fight anymore? Okay. Well, let's see just how true that is because you know what, Beth? I don't believe you.’
Jennifer strode over to the phone and dialled a number. Beth didn't attempt to stop her. She sank into the chair. The fight had ebbed out of her. She had told the truth – she really didn't care what happened to her any longer.
Jennifer had naturally pale skin but four ugly welts stood out proud and red on her cheek. Beth noticed for the first time that she'd caught the side of her mouth when she'd struck her. A small cut was bleeding slightly at the corner of her lip.
Beth felt lightheaded. So this is it, then, she thought as she listened to Jennifer say, ‘Hello... Hello. Yes, um, I'd like to report an offence please.’